Winner of the 2018 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sportswriting
Muhammad Ali called himself “The Greatest,” and many agreed. He was the wittiest, the prettiest, the brashest, the baddest, the fastest, the loudest, the rashest. Now comes the first complete, unauthorized biography of one of the twentieth century's most fantastic figures. Based on more than 500 interviews with almost all of Ali’s surviving associates, and enhanced by the author’s discovery of thousands of pages of FBI records and newly uncovered Ali interviews from the 1960s, this is the stunning portrait of a man who became a legend.
"Jonathan Eig’s masterful new biography of the champ is both captivating and highly relevant to the current discussions on race in America."
One author's quest to write the greatest biography of all time. Find out what it was like for Jonathan Eig as he spent five years chasing Ali.
I grew up with Ali's poster pinned to the ceiling of my bedroom. His image was, really and truly, the first and last thing I looked at every day. The idea that I might one day become his biographer would not have come to me even in the wildest of my eight-year-old dreams.
And yet, almost half a century and 600 interviews later, here we are.
Ali was not only the most spectacular athlete and one of the most riveting figures in American cultural history, he was, as Norman Mailer put it, the very spirit of the twentieth century. If you were alive in the 1960s and '70s, you might have hated Ali or might have loved him, but you were almost certainly fascinated. I loved him. And one day many years later, around 2013, it occurred to me that no one had written the big, fat biography that Ali so clearly deserved. For a moment, I was stunned. Wait, could this be true? Could the kid with the poster on his ceiling actually get away with something so outrageous? Could I be the guy who writes the Ali bio? Holy shit, right?
And why not? It had been 50 years since Ali shook up the world, as he put it, beating Sonny Liston, becoming the heavyweight champ, telling white America to get used to a new kind of proud and ferocious Black man, joining the Nation of Islam, refusing to fight in Vietnam... A serious book on Ali needed the kind of perspective that 50 years provides. At the same time, Ali was still alive. His brother and three of his four wives were still alive. George Foreman, Don King, Ferdie Pacheco, and hundreds of others who knew Ali intimately were still alive...and willing to talk to me. My timing could not have been better, and my journey could not have been more thrilling.
I learned stuff about Ali that Ali didn't know. I learned his grandfather was a convicted murderer and his great-great-great grandfather escaped from slavery to help support Union troops in the Civil War.
Some of the things I learned about Ali I wish I'd never learned. He treated women terribly. He abandoned Malcolm X when he might saved him from assassination.
When I finished the book, Ali was no longer the two-dimensional image on my bedroom ceiling. But I still love him, maybe more than ever, because he knew his own flaws, he learned to live with failure, and he never quit. When you can say all that, I think it's perfectly reasonable to call yourself The Greatest of All Tiiiiimes!